When antitrust accusations close in on Google the tech giant loves to fire back a riposte that competition is just “one click away“. It’s a disingenuous retort from an online advertising behemoth whose power and profits stem from its expertise in capturing markets by manipulating and monopolizing Internet users’ attention.
Indeed, the entire brand is arguably a dark pattern.
Behold the child-like colors! The friendly babble of syllables! The tempting freebies! The tall talk of missions and moonshots! And tucked quietly beneath that Googley exterior: The adtech giant tracking Internet users en masse to sell their attention. The business model that makes money through mass surveillance and people profiling.
Google’s ‘other bets’ have always been PR pocket change beside its ads profit machine. The fun stuff is simply how Google primes its people data pump.
So what if Google’s infamous ‘one-click competition’ claim were to actually be made true in the arena of Android search engine choice? A market where Google’s activity is being closely monitored by EU competition regulators — after a 2018 antitrust decision.
Three years ago the tech giant hit with a $5BN penalty and an order to stop using Android (aka its freebie for mobile device makers) to lock in the dominance of its own-brand search engine (and other Google services) on mobile, where its operating system is massively dominant.
It went on to adopt a so-called ‘choice screen’ on Android in the region — which prompts device users to pick a default search engine from a selection of options (Google auctions slots to rivals).
But the choice is more of a one-shot than a dynamic, ongoing possibility to switch the default for Android users — as they are only asked to choose their default choice on set up of a new device or after a factory reset.
“That means, for all practical purposes, if you want to change your default device search engine again easily, you can’t,” writes DuckDuckGo in its latest blog post pushing for reform of Google’s self-serving Android ‘remedy’.
By DDG’s count it takes 15+ clicks (not one) to switch default search engine on an Android device at any other point (i.e. after initial set up or factory reset). And it says it knows “from experience” that this over-15-clicks method “trips up almost everyone”.
“In other words, one click competition becomes in fact ‘one factory reset away’,” it goes on. “The only reasons we can think of for setting up a preference menu this way are anti-competitive ones.”
The pro-privacy search engine has been banging the drum on this point for months (if not years) at this point. Nor is it alone in complaining about Google’s remedy. And complaints aren’t limited to how hard it is to switch search engines at any other point after set-up, either.
Notably, Google’s decision to opt for a ‘pay-to-play’ model by auctioning slots on the choice screen has been widely criticized — with multiple search rivals arguing that an auction isn’t fair and does not result in a level playing field for competition (Google’s own search engine always appears as a choice, of course, and it doesn’t have to pay anyone to appear).
Not-for-profit search engine Ecosia, for example, points out that the auction format essentially discriminates against non-profit search engines, undermining the public good they may be trying to do (in its case it uses ad revenue from search to plant trees to try to help reduce global carbon emissions — so money paid to Google to win the auction means less money it can spend planting trees).
DDG has also been a critic of the paid auction model from the start. But with its latest blog post it told TechCrunch it’s trying to make sure the ‘ease of switching’ issue doesn’t get lost in criticism of the auction.
It continues to argue that multiple components need to be reformed if the choice screen is to have the pro-competition effect EU antirust regulators are seeking.
It’s increasing clear that the current implementation isn’t working for anyone other than Google — which has been able to maintain its grip on the mobile search market, almost three years after the Commission’s antitrust intervention.
Its share of the search engine market on mobile devices has not declined since 2018. Indeed, as of February it was actually up slightly on the marketshare it had when the antitrust ruling was made, per Statista data.
That can’t be what market rebalancing success looks like.
Previously when we’ve put rivals’ criticisms to the Commission it tends to offer a few stock responses — saying it’s monitoring Google’s implementation and is committed to an effective implementation of the 2018 decision — while avoiding engaging with the substance of the criticisms or specific suggestions to fix Google’s remedy.
The Commission reiterated the same lines when we contacted it now about DuckDuckGo’s call for true ‘one-click’ competition on Android by easier default search engine switching.
But there are signs EU regulators may finally be preparing to do something.
Earlier this month Bloomberg reported on comments made by antitrust chief and Commission EVP Margrethe Vestager, who said regulators are “actively working on making” Google’s Android choice screen for search and browser rivals work.
She is also reported to have said that market share “is changing a bit but we’re working on it”.
In additional comments to us, the Commission reiterated that it’s “committed to a full and effective implementation of the decision, saying: “We are therefore monitoring closely the implementation of the choice screen mechanism.”
“We have been discussing the choice screen mechanism with Google, following relevant feedback from the market, in particular in relation to the presentation and mechanics of the choice screen and to the selection mechanism of rival search providers,” it added.
DuckDuckGo declined to go into detail on any chats it’s having with EU regulators on how to reform the choice screen — saying that it can’t comment on discussions with the Commission. But founder Gabriel Weinberg pointed out other jurisdictions are eyeing how to remedy Google’s dominance, adding that “major countries are actively considering search preference menus right now”.
“We believe a ‘choice screen’ that only appears once at start up will not meaningfully increase market competition or give consumers the freedom and simplicity they deserve to chose Google alternatives,” Weinberg also told us. “On the other hand, a properly designed preference menu gives users true one-click access to making Google competitors the default search on their device, without having to take the absurd step of factory reseting their phone.”
In its blog post, DDG has some plain words of advice for how regulators can beat Google at its own game and prevent it gaming search competition on Android.
“The sensible approach is to give users an easy pathway to the search preference menu by letting them tap a link from a search engine app or website within the default browser (e.g., Chrome). With that simple tap, the user is whisked directly to the search preference menu,” it writes.
“Not allowing competing search engines to easily guide consumers back to the search preference menu is a pretty big dark pattern because it is requiring users to make an important choice when they often aren’t ready to do so, and then not giving them the option to easily change their mind later while using a competing search engine.”
“So, to anyone considering implementing a search preference menu, or drafting regulations covering search preference menus, please ensure that consumers can access it at any time, especially after a consumer has just chosen to use a competing search engine,” it adds. “Functionality that allows competing search engines to guide consumers directly to the preference menu is necessary for consumer empowerment and search market competition.”